A Crackerjack Crab House

DINING OUT

August 28, 1994|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Schultz's Crab House, 1732 Old Eastern Ave., Essex. (410) 687-1020. Open every day for lunch and dinner. MC, V. No-smoking area: no. Prices: appetizers, $1.35-$5.75; entrees, $8.95-$16.95. ***

What is the world coming to when you ask for a glass of white wine at a nice, old-fashioned crab house (OK, that was the first mistake), and the waiter says, "White zinfandel or white Chablis?"

Next they'll be serving tiramisu for dessert.

Not to worry, in almost every other respect Schultz's Crab House seems timeless: a family-owned and family-operated business where the hard shells are enormous and as good as they get.

It's a pleasure to sit down in Schultz's inviting dining room, with its knotty pine walls, leaping marlins and paper-covered tables with red paper place mats on top. The place is friendly and unpretentious, like the people who work there.

I'm fast becoming Baltimore's greatest living expert on crab houses as I make the rounds for the September issue of Dining Out, which will feature local seafood restaurants. So far I haven't come across any crab houses I haven't liked (so much for being a discriminating eater), but Schultz's is definitely one of the ones at the top of the list.

A lesson I learned early on in this odyssey is that people say that they prefer smaller crabs because they're sweeter, but they buy up the larger ones. So call first to see what's available. At 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon when I phoned Schultz's to get directions, the man who answered said they were running out of crabs -- small and large -- but that Tuesdays and Wednesdays there were always plenty available.

When we got there the following Tuesday, we found that the kitchen had smalls ready to serve but anything bigger was steamed to order. (Fine with me.) Schultz's is a real crab connoisseur's crab house -- there must have been six different sizes, with the top of the line being 30s ($30 a dozen, in other words).

We ordered six of these, with the understanding that they would arrive about 25 minutes later. Meanwhile we snacked on Schultz's hot bread and something called a seafood shell. This is a specialty of the house, and one of the strangest appetizers I've ever put in my mouth. The kitchen takes chopped shrimp, crab meat, onion and tomato, makes a patty out of them, rolls it in cornmeal batter and fries it. Somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

On the plus side, while a cup of Schultz's crab bisque was thicker than it should have been, it had the good flavors of cream and nutmeg, and nice lumps of crab. Other soups are Maryland crab and seafood gumbo.

That's about it in the way of first courses unless you want something from the raw bar. The other possibility is munchies like fried mushrooms or what the carbo-loader among us ordered, a basket of potato wedges. These are simply chunks of potatoes deep-fried and served with sour cream, but they tasted great -- better than french fries.

Just about then the crabs arrived, big enough that you had to wonder if you were going to eat them or they were going to eat you. The meat may be sweeter in smaller crabs, but it sure is more accessible in crabs big as a house. And when crabs are freshly steamed, they don't taste waterlogged, which to my mind makes them worth the wait.

Schultz's has its own seasoning mix, subtly different from others I've tasted. I couldn't say what's in it, but it had the virtue of delivering just as much flavor as it did fire.

Schultz's is more of a complete seafood restaurant than many crab houses, what with its raw bar and separate page of lobster dinners. But the waiter steered us away from the lobsters, saying that they weren't very meaty right then.

We tried a crab cake and chicken salad platter, a combination that reminds me of church picnics. I liked the crab cake even though it didn't have big lumps of crab meat; the zesty seasonings didn't overwhelm the crab and it was lightly fried. The chicken salad had too much mayonnaise, but the combination was appealing. Have Schultz's made-on-the-premises cucumber or macaroni salad with it.

The only fish on the menu is orange roughy. We had it stuffed with crab imperial, and that's what I'd recommend if you don't want hard shells. The flesh was fresh and sweet, not overcooked; and the crab imperial consisted of jumbo lumps of crab just lightly seasoned.

The kitchen handled all this so well you'd think it wouldn't have any trouble with a broiled sea scallop platter. Not true, unfortunately. One of my guests said the scallops didn't taste fresh enough to begin with, but they were so heavily doused with Old Bay I couldn't taste anything else.

Desserts are something of an afterthought at Schultz's -- nobody is back there in the kitchen baking pies, in other words -- but there is a decent chocolate and a decent lemon meringue pie (if you skip the crusts).

One word of warning if you don't live in Essex: Check out a map before you try to get there. We got hopelessly lost, partly because we didn't realize the address is Old Eastern Avenue but the street signs say "Eastern."

Next: Sausalito

BTC

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